Creature Feature

Fantasia Review: Monster Seafood Wars

On his way to make an offering of squid, octopus, and crab, a young scientist’s offering is stolen. The animals are given a secret drug to make them grow into giant monsters. It’s up to him and a government team to stop these enormous sea creatures before they destroy the city.

Fantasia International Film Festival is bringing lots of laughs to their audiences with Monster Seafood Wars. Director Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler, Executive Koala) co-wrote the film with Masakazu Migita (Death Kappa, Outer Man) based on an unmade film by Eiji Tsuburaya (Godzilla, Tokyo 1960). The film is a parody of the giant monster films popular in Japan. Kawasaki has a long history of making these types of films, but this is the first time he has brought all three of his seafood monsters together in on one screen. The film primarily focuses on Yuta, the young man who invented the drug, who is fired before he is able to complete is work. While he’s working at his father’s fish market, someone steals his seafood offering and uses his invention to unleash havoc on the city.

Monster Seafood Wars is funny, action packed, and also very cheesy. That cheesiness is part of the film’s appeal, especially since it is meant to be a parody. Some of the dialogue is comparable to what many of us likely experienced watching old episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the 90’s. There is also a lot of food references throughout the film. Yuta makes it clear that he created this drug to make animals bigger to help feed the world. This leads to a long stretch in the middle of the film where people begin to eat monster meat and it is regarded as the best tasting meat there is. Kawasaki even brought Masayuki Kusumi, of Solitary Gourmet fame, on board to supervise. It definitely makes your stomach growl watch all the delicious looking food, but it also makes the middle of the film drag as we see meal after meal with no progression of the plot.

Likely in keeping with the parody aspect of Monster Seafood Wars, many of the performances are over the top and hilarious. The clear standout is Keisuke Ueda (Black Crow 1, Yowamushi Pedal) as Yuta. Yuta is the most relatable character for many audience members who are likely watching the film for the monsters. Yuta loves monsters and even describes them as “cute,” but Ueda still does a fantastic job of making it clear that his true purpose is to make the world a better place. Yoshida Ayano Christie makes her debut as Nana, a member of the Defense Ministry and a childhood friend of Yuta’s. Nana is the only female starring in the film, and she is a strong authority figure. Christie is great at making her character stand with the men as their equals.

The creature designs for this film are absolutely delightful. Kawasaki used monsters from his previous films, but this is the first time they have all been together in one film. They all have a very static look common with monsters from classic 1950’s monster movies. The monsters are people in costumes, typically working on a green-screen or in a set with model buildings that can be smashed to smithereens. All three creatures are adorable and I want to cuddle them. The one aspect of the low-budget beasts that I was not a fan of is how the octopus monster looks like he has a giant vagina on his forehead.

Monster Seafood Wars is a delightful giant monster throwback, complete with people wearing the monster costumes. Kawasaki clearly loves Godzilla and similar classics and shows that love by creating his own, more humorous version of those films. Despite some of the clunky dialogue, the performances for the most part are great and Ueda and Christie are endearing to watch. Because of how goofy the film intentionally is, and the long food sequences, this film won’t be for everyone. Yet it will greatly appeal to all the monster lovers out there, just like Yuta.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Fantasia Review: The Mortuary Collection

A young woman visits a mortuary to interview for a job. Throughout the course of the interview, the creepy mortician tells ghastly tales of how some of the bodies came to be in his mortuary. Spanning from the 50’s to the 80’s, each tale is more horrifying than the last.

Writer and director Ryan Spindell brings his feature-film debut to the Fantasia International Film Festival. The Mortuary Collection tells four tales of terror with a single overarching plot to tie it all together. That overarching is the story of a somewhat frightening mortician in his mortuary. After a funeral he gets a knock at the door and meets a young woman looking for a job. As he goes through the motions of the interview process, the young woman encourages him to tell scary stories. But these aren’t just any scary stories. These stories are about how and why certain bodies ended up in this mortuary.

The audience gets to hear stories from different subgenres of horror including a pickpocket from the 50’s who finds more than she bargained for, a 60’s frat boy who learns a lesson the hard way, a husband forced to make a tough choice about his invalid wife in the 70’s, and an homage to the classic 80’s babysitter/serial killer story. These stories are fascinating, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it has a bit of a “woman-hating” tone. Each of the main female characters typically is portrayed in a negative light or meets some kind of violence. I believe it may seem this way because the film also tends to portray women in roles typically reserved for men, but it was an aspect that gave me pause.

Despite spanning four decades and covering a wide range of topics, these stories feel unified. Each tale in The Mortuary Collection is unique, but Spindell unifies them by giving all of them the same, somewhat cheeky tone. There is a perfect marriage of gruesome events sprinkled with moments of dark humor. It gives the film a bit of a lighthearted feel despite some of the more horrifying and graphic stories being told. Even the overall look of the film helps tie the different stories together. They all have the same visual style, utilizing a heavily blue and green color palette. The filmmakers also had all the stories take place in the same town of Raven’s End. The scary, yet humorous tone combined with the eerie look of the film all blend seamlessly. It’s as though Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Creepshow came together and had a spooky baby.

Other visual aspects of The Mortuary Collection that enhance the look and vibe of the film are the production and effects designs. From the moment the camera moves through the streets of Raven’s End, the audience is transported back in time. The cars are clearly decades old, the buildings all look as if they have been around for at least 100 years, and the clothing matches the time period. The mortuary itself is an absolutely gorgeous Victorian building that I would definitely live in, even if it was haunted. The sets and costumes also help us move through the decades in each story and match perfectly to their respective time periods. To bring terror into these tales, the filmmakers use absolutely gorgeous practical effects. There is some CGI enhancement, but for the most part you can tell they wanted to keep it old school. The effects are just as stunning as they are disturbing, plus they add quite a bit of fright to the film.

From each segment, The Mortuary Collection encompasses tremendous performances. Everyone is truly magical, but it is the mortician and the young woman he is interviewing who stand out. Clancy Brown (Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers) stars as the mortician himself. This man is creepy, decrepit, and always seems to be laughing at some inside joke in his head. Clancy brings this character to life in the most memorable way, being both scary and funny all at once. Caitlin Fisher (Teen Wolf, Extraction) plays the interviewee, Sam. Fisher’s performance really stands out because, on the outside, Sam appears to be just a sweet girl looking for a job. Yet Sam is cunning and challenges the mortician at every turn and Fisher conveys that defiant nature quite well. Brown and Fisher also have a great banter between the two of them and seem to challenge each other for dominance at every turn.

The Mortuary Collection is an enthralling blend of scares and laughs that is a delight to watch from start to finish. The fact that this is Spindell’s feature-film debut makes me believe he is a writer/director horror fans should keep an eye on. As a whole and also looking at the individual tales of horror, the various plots are all unique and intriguing to watch and every performance is impressive. Unified by the gorgeous visuals and the storytelling mortician, The Mortuary Collection delivers a group of tales audiences are sure to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Sea Fever

A research scientist in Ireland charters a spot on a fishing boat to study any abnormalities in the boat’s catch. The ship is suddenly marooned in the middle of the ocean. The small group discovers some kind of giant aquatic creature has taken hold of the boat and it has unleashed deadly parasites that threaten the lives of the entire crew.

Writer and director Neasa Hardiman (Jessica Jones, Happy Valley) delivers a disturbing new aquatic horror film with Sea Fever. The film quickly establishes Siobhán, the scientist, as a loner amongst her peers who is dedicated to her analytical research. Her boss is making her work out in the field to come out of her shell. Despite their better judgement, the boat crew take her on because they need the money. When a huge, frightening sea creature grabs hold of their ship it leaves them marooned in the middle of the ocean. Even worse, the creature has unleashed a deadly parasite. The tension between the members of the crew and the terror from not knowing who is infected not only create a frightening film, but the subject is also very topical with the state of the world right now. An added suspenseful aspect is a battle between those who know the importance of quarantine and those who think only of themselves and desperately want to get home. It is something we are currently living, but done on a smaller scale and with a parasite that almost certainly means death for those who are infected. It’s truly terrifying, although there are a few minor aspects of the plot that leave bigger unanswered questions.

One aspect of Sea Fever that I find truly fascinating and well done is the juxtaposition of science and superstition. Siobhán is a very calculated individual and sticks to the facts. Her marine biology background proves to be very helpful in figuring out what is happening when they encounter the mysterious creature and the parasites. On the other hand, most of the ship’s crew is incredibly superstitious. We learn this very quickly when they discover Siobhán has red hair, which is apparently considered bad luck. While she is trying to use her scientific rationale to help them all survive, the crew is constantly combatting her because of their superstitious beliefs. Seeing these two opposing sides adds a human danger to what’s happening while also showing how turning you back on science only makes things far worse.

The performances are all absolutely fantastic. It’s difficult to narrow down the standouts from Sea Fever because they all truly give it their all. Hermione Corfield (Rust Creek, Slaughterhouse Rulez) stars as Siobhán. Corfield initially plays Siobhán very socially awkward, but the more time she spends with the crew the more she seems to be in her element. This is especially noticeable as she takes charge when using her knowledge to try to save the crew. Dougray Scott (Ever After, Mission: Impossible II) plays the ship’s captain, Gerard. Gerard is arguably the most superstitious person on the ship. Scott conveys this quite well as Gerard becomes increasingly hostile the more dire the situation gets. Ardalan Esmaili (Greyzone, Domino) plays the ship’s engineer, Omid. Esmaili is fantastic in this role, acting as a sort of intermediary. As an engineer, Omid clearly has a very scientific mind and sees Siobhán’s point of view, but because he has worked on the boat for so long, he also understands the superstitions. Other brilliant performances come from Jack Hickey (Mary Shelley) as Johnny, Olwen Fouéré (Mandy) as Ciara, Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman) as Freya, and Elie Bouakaze in his debut as Sudi.

Horror fans will not be disappointed by the visuals in Sea Fever. The setting alone sets the tone for the film. The fishing boat seems to be in need of repair and helps create a claustrophobic feeling once they’re out on the open ocean. The creature design is also quite stunning. It is huge, ominous, and also beautiful with its bioluminescence. What makes the creature even more frightening is that we never see the entire creature. It lurks in the dark depths where we can’t see it, so we can only guess its true size and what it looks like. It’s very clever because the audience gets to see the creepy glowing CGI tentacles, but the rest is left to the imagination. There is also some disgusting goo and smaller creepy crawly parasites. These are created by a combination of CGI and practical effects. The practically created wounds are also beautifully grotesque.

Sea Fever is a topical aquatic horror film that combines the frights of a creature feature with the suspense of an outbreak film. Hardiman absolutely kills it with this film, delivering as much heightened tension as she does fear of what’s lurking below in the deep waters. The battle between science and superstition throughout the film makes it especially fascinating and relevant. On top of the great plot are brilliant performances from the entire cast and a smartly designed menacing deep sea creature. This is a film that will make people afraid of what is waiting for them in the ocean’s depths.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Scare Package

What’s better than seven tales of horror wrapped in one package? Seven meta tales of horror filled with laughs, gore, up-and-coming filmmakers, and familiar faces wrapped in one package. This and more awaits viewers in the new horror anthology, Scare Package.

Scare Package brings together a host of talented writers and directors. They all used their individual segments to hone in on various horror tropes and either subvert them or highlight those tropes. Viewers will no doubt watch the seven short films and see numerous nods to classic horror films, some more obvious than others. Sometimes the plots take a back seat to the visual aspects, but these aspects often tell a story of their own for the trained horror fan’s eye. Through all the meta filmmaking and Easter eggs, the filmmakers still manage to tell stories that are as funny as they are unique.

“Cold Open” hilariously honors the characters in horror films that are briefly seen and don’t get enough credit for setting up the film, while also honoring one of the most popular horror films of all time. “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” is not only a place I wish I worked, but it’s also the overarching story that ties everything together as each segment is presented like a rental at Rad Chad’s. “One Time in the Woods” is probably the goriest segment that also throws as many horror subgenres at you as it can. “M.I.S.T.E.R.” is likely going to piss off a few male viewers, but I mean that in the best way possible because it perfectly plays with the idea of what makes a real man. “Girls’ Night Out of Body” can be found in the post modern feminist slasher revenge body horror section at Rad Chad’s, and that honestly sums it up perfectly. “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” plays into the classic horror trope of the masked killer that somehow always comes back, no matter how you kill him! “So Much to Do” exemplifies how important shows are to some people and the dangers of revealing spoilers. And finally, “Horror Hypothesis” takes everything you know about slashers and puts it to the test.

The performances in Scare Package are all fantastic, many of them being highly satirical and sure to make viewers laugh. Because many of the segments are meant to a mockery of horror tropes, some of the performances come across as intentionally cheesy. That might not appeal to all viewers, but definitely made me laugh. A clear standout performance from the beginning is Jeremy King (The Pale Door, Sinister Seduction) as none other than Rad Chad himself. King perfectly embodies all the good and bad aspects of hardcore horror lovers. His portrayal will make you love Chad as much as you also can’t help but roll your eyes at him. Another great performance comes from none other than Noah Segan (Knives Out, Mohawk) who stars as the husband in the segment he also co-wrote and directed, “M.I.S.T.E.R.” Segan does a fantastic job of acting as a typical nice guy with an underlying creepiness. Toni Trucks (Grimm, Franklin & Bash) stars in the “So Much To Do” segment as Franchesca. Trucks really shines in this role mostly because she kicks some serious ass. She has one of the most physical roles of all the segments, and she definitely delivers. Really all the performances are delightful and horror fans are sure to see more than a few familiar faces.

One thing I can promise viewers is that there is a lot of gore in Scare Package. The film relies on practical effects to create creative kills, gruesome monsters, and devious killers. There is definitely no shortage of blood, guts, and goo. While all of these segments utilize great practical effects, the most memorable in that regard is definitely “One Time in the Woods.” Not only does it have a high body count and unique kills, but it also has a fantastic melting character that looks absolutely amazing. If lots and lots of blood is more your speed, then “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” is definitely the segment for you. The effects have a little something for everything horror fan.

Scare Package hilariously highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of horror films. It’s clear this anthology was put together by horror fans for horror fans. Each segment is a hilarious take on various horror tropes, but there are still delightfully unique stories to be seen. At times it might be a bit too meta and tongue-and-cheek for some viewers. I for one scared my pets multiple times by bursting into laughter. Scare Package showcases the beginnings of promising careers for these writer and directors. Fans will also be laughing along with the fresh new actors and cheering for the horror favorites that pop-up. It might be a bit goofy at times, gory horror anthology that viewers are sure to adore.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Diablo Rojo PTY

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Thanks to the work of a coven of witches, a bus driver, his assistant, two cops, and a priest cross paths. They find themselves lost in a remote part of Panama. To survive, these men will have to combat witches, cannibals, and the legend of La Tulivieja. With only the bus for refuge, it will take all their effort to make it until morning.

Diablo Rojo PTY is the first horror film to come out of Panama, and it definitely jumps into the horror scene with a bang. The film is directed by first-time director Sol Moreno alongside J. Oskura Nájera (Megamuerte). Combining multiple different stories from Panamanian folklore, Nájera wrote the script along with collaborating writer Adair Dominguez, making his film debut. To say there is a whole lot going on in Diablo Rojo PTY would be an understatement. The opening of the film throws so many different things at the audience at once that many will likely have no idea what’s going on. Once the various characters are introduced, the filmmakers take time to make sense of what has already been shown. The various threads come together in a way that begins to make sense. Then in the final act the plot is thrown into chaos again, some things making more sense than others. It leads to a delightfully gory climax jam-packed with carnage.

It makes sense, since this is Panama’s first horror film, that the filmmakers would want to include as much folklore as possible into Diablo Rojo PTY. There are witches who have cursed the unfortunate men of the film. There is La Tulivieja, which has a similar origin story to Mexico’s La Llorona except La Tulivieja takes on a horrifying, ghastly form as she searches for her child along the river. There is even a deadly cannibal tribe hunting for human prey in the Chiriqui jungle. While these elements are interesting, it is really too much for one film. Viewers will see shocking things including the witches, cannibal tribes, a monstrous creature, infanticide, and even incest. Unfortunately, many of these things are shown, but never full realized or explained in enough detail. The plot ends up muddled and inconsistent as some areas are more explored while others are never fully resolved. The same can be said for the characters. Some of the characters, like Manuel, feel more fully formed compared to someone like Officer Pinilla who seems to just be there to have someone to dislike. Many viewers will likely find parts they can connect to and parts that leave them wanting more.

Despite the ups and downs in the plot and character development, the performances are still enjoyable to watch. Carlos Carrasco (Speed, Parker) stars as the Diablo Rojo bus driver, Manuel. He is by far the most complex character in the film, and Carrasco brings depth to a man who initially comes across as quite simple. Julian Urriola makes his debut as Manuel’s assistant, Juanito. Juanito is definitely a misfit, and that persona doesn’t really change even when facing certain death. While the character isn’t necessarily that likable, Urriola does a great job of bringing him to life. Blas Valois also makes his film debut as Officer Pinilla. This character makes the least amount of sense of everyone. He’s rude for no apparent reason, doesn’t seem to be a very good cop, and keeps stupidly going off on his own even when he knows what dangers lie in wait. The way this character is written unfortunately makes it really difficult to tell if Valois’s performance was part of the problem as well, or just the character.

As with much of the film, the visuals in Diablo Rojo PTY are also a mixed bag. For the most part I would say the visuals feel like what fans would expect from a low-budget horror flick. The filmmakers relied entirely on practical effects to create the creatures and gore. There are some particularly grotesque effects in the climax of the film that might not look the most realistic, but they are still very well done and make the scenes fun to watch. The creature design for La Tulivieja is definitely unique and is sure to remind horror fans of the demons from the Evil Dead franchise. That nod to classic horror is just one of many throughout the film, and honestly these nods are some of the most enjoyable parts of the film. The musical score by Ricardo Risco sometimes sounds very similar to the score from The Shining. Even the very last scene of the film takes iconic imagery that likely comes from Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Again, I really enjoyed these visual nods to classic films, but sometimes they added to the muddiness of the plot.

Diablo Rojo PTY has some great moments and includes a lot of fascinating Panamanian folklore, but it quickly reaches the point of having too much. Moreno and Nájera have nuggets of greatness throughout the film. The problem is, when you try to include so many different elements, nothing ends up getting the time and attention it really deserves. A film that has witches, cannibals, and La Tulivieja is a lot to tackle in a film that is only about an hour and 16 minutes. The performances, practical effects, and visual nods to classic horror films make up for some of the film’s pitfalls, but there is still a lot to be desired. I do believe this is a promising start considering it’s the first horror film from Panama. Hopefully the filmmakers will remember this adage on their next film: sometimes, less is more.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

Monstrum

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It’s an unstable time for Joseon, a kingdom of Korea. Between threats of plague, political unrest, and rumors of a vicious monster stalking the countryside, King Jung Jong’s reign is threatened. He sends the exiled Yoon Gyeom to investigate claims of the monster, but along the way he unlocks dark secrets and a conspiracy to dethrone the king.

Monstrum is a thrilling Korean film blending martial arts, history, and a giant monster directed by Jong-ho Huh (The Advocate: A Missing Body, Countdown). Huh co-wrote the screenplay along with first time screenwriter Heo-dam. I personally have always been a fan of Korean horror films. To date I haven’t seen one that I didn’t love, and Monstrum is no different. The plot combines multiple different genres and subgenres of film to create something beautiful. It is a period piece, showing a bit of 16th century Korean history intertwined with fiction. It is a political thriller, revealing sinister conspiracies to dethrone the king. It is a martial arts film, complete with fantastic fight choreography. Then, of course, it is a creature feature with a quite unique monster called Monstrum. Huh and Heo-dam seamlessly bring these elements together. The resulting film has a little something for everyone to enjoy.

The film builds suspense by gradually revealing information to the viewers. At first the rumors of the monster are just that, rumors. The filmmakers play with the audience by initially making it unclear if Monstrum is a real beast threatening the kingdom or if it’s a figment created by those wanting to overthrow the king. That makes the reveal of the monster even more exciting. There are many messages thrown around throughout the film, but what stands out as the prevailing theme is how those who suffer the most from coups are the common folk. Time and time again we see how the poor people in the kingdom are slaughtered, sacrificed, and left to starve or exposed to plague while those in power stay safe within their palaces. It’s a theme that stands out not only because it tells a thrilling story, but also because it is something that still happens today. In the world today, I think many of us can relate to the fear of plague and feeling as though those in power couldn’t care less whether we die or not.

Monstrum has a huge cast of characters and all of them are a delight to watch. Myung-Min Kim (Six Flying Dragons, Closer to Heaven) stars as the once exiled Yoon Gyeom. We we first meet Yoon, he’s kind of dopey and lives in the countryside with his daughter and brother. When he is called upon by the king to help the investigation into Monstrum, Myung-Min Kim completely changes the character to a respectable and formidable man, yet it still feels natural. In-kwon Kim (My Way, Tidal Wave) plays the lovable Sung Han. Living with Yoon and his daughter, Sung is definitely the goofy uncle. While he can clearly kick some butt as well, In-kwon Kim makes sure to keep that goofiness throughout the film. Hyeri Lee (Reply 1988, My Punch-Drunk Boxer) plays Yoon’s daughter, Myung. She is smart, skilled, and takes everything in stride. Lee shows how Myung’s strong will allows her to easily go from being a simple country girl to warrior fighting alongside her father. Honorable mention goes to Woo-sik Choi as royal guard member Heo, whom many will likely recognize from the Oscar-winning hit film Parasite. This motley band of heroes makes the film even more enjoyable because you have someone to really root for.

There are so many stunning visual elements that make Monstrum an artistic feat. The most obvious things viewers will notice are the fantastic costume and set design. It’s clear a lot of care was taken to not only make the costumes and sets visually appealing, but also true to the period of the film. Of course, the film also includes glorious fight choreography as well. Surprisingly, the film has some shockingly realistic and very well done practical effects. This is evident in various wounds and the physical effects of the plague. What I’m sure everyone is really wondering about is Monstrum himself. The beast is done with CGI and somehow manages to look both menacing and adorable. I may be alone on this, but I think Monstrum is cute. While the CGI itself isn’t necessarily the best, the actual creature has a stylish and distinct look. The design of the creature is stunning and feels reminiscent of the beasts one would find carved around ancient temples and palaces of Asia. There is just so much to look at, which may be discouraging for viewers who take issue with subtitled films, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Monstrum is a gorgeous film brimming with action, beauty, suspense, and of course a giant monster. Jong-ho Huh and Heo-dam expertly put all these different elements and genres together in a way that tells a memorable story. It not only has great performances, but it also is one of the most visually appealing films I’ve seen so far this year. There is a lot for people to look at on screen while also reading subtitles so it can be difficult at times to take everything in, but don’t let that discourage you. Even if it takes multiple watches to catch all the details, it is one you won’t want to miss. Monstrum is sure to be on many “best of 2020” lists at the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Camp Calypso (Short)

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It’s the 1970’s and a group of kids are arriving at a summer camp on its last legs. It’s a typical camp complete with misogyny, cabins, camp counselors on drugs, and a seedy new camp director. It seems like just another summer at camp, until the legend of the lake siren proves to be a little too real.

Camp Calypso is the sophomore short film by directing duo Hannah May Cumming (Fanatico), who also wrote the short, and Karlee Boon (Fanatico). This short begins much like the classic slashers of the 1980’s. We meet a small group of campers and the counselors who will watch over them for a fun-filled summer. On the first night while gathered around the campfire, the campers learn about an the legend of a siren who lives in the lake and a young woman who drowned at the camp in the 1960’s. Cumming and Boon do a fantastic job of creating a complete story in less than 20 minutes. They gradually reveal more details for the audience, slowly unravelling the mysteries of the past and connecting them to what is happening at the camp with the latest batch of counselors and campers. It veers from a typical summer camp horror flick to something much more intricate and interesting.

While the only other short film I’ve seen by Cumming and Boon is Fanatico, from what I have seen it is clear this duo has something to say. A common theme in their work, which is clearly evident in Camp Calypso, is feminism, the battle against misogyny, and challenging traditional female roles. The only characters in this short that could be considered stereotypes are the men. They are chauvinistic womanizers who care more about getting laid than doing their job, even when that means being forceful with women. The female characters, on the other hand, are more dynamic. Cumming and Boon also flipped the classic idea of a siren. Most people know the legend of how sirens dwell in bodies of water and use their song to lure men to their deaths. While that is true in Camp Calypso, there is more to the siren’s origin than the legend suggests.

The entire cast of Camp Calypso delivers compelling performances from the camp counselors, to the campers, to the camp director. While everyone is great, I’m going to focus on the female performances. Ruby Cumming stars as Margot, the shy young camper. Margot is the more reserved and observant type, so she is the first to really notice something is wrong at Camp Calypso, and Ruby Cumming adds a sincerity to the role. Misha Kemp plays camp counselor Heather. She is kind and in charge, but also willing to sneak off for a little weed. Kemp excels in the role with how she is able to be gentle and nurturing, yet she takes no shit when a male counselor tries to feel her up. Then there is the other female camp counselor, Cherry, played by Savannah Rae Jones (The Halo). At first glance, Cherry looks like the stereotypical slutty camp counselor. Yet Jones shows there is much more to Cherry than meets the eye. This is evident from her first interaction with the male counselors when she blows them off, to the way she remains cool under pressure. While the women are the clear stars, I will give honorable mention to the men including Derek Sweet, Dawson Redmond, Erik Norseth, and Nathaniel Owens.

A lot of artistic work went into Camp Calypso to make it feel like it could come from the late 1970’s while also making it a fun creature feature. For a low-budget short film, they managed to get a really great location for the camp that helps transport the audience. The wardrobe also helps quite a bit in this area, each outfit looking like it could easily have come from the late 70’s or early 80’s. Camp Calypso also has a vibrant color palette that catches the eye. What is especially surprising is the delightful creature effects for the siren. The practical prosthetics are subtle, but very well done and effective. Plus there is some delightful gore thrown in for good measure. Plus the short boasts a fantastic score by Rudy Klobas, Carlo Mery ft. Nick Mcclurg that perfectly embodies the time period. The only visual aspect I didn’t like is more of a film pet peeve of mine: the use of blue filter to make turn day into night. I realize it’s the simplest and most cost effective method for filmmakers, but it never looks right.

Camp Calypso is a delightful short monster movie that takes a bite out of misogyny. Cumming and Boon make a unique short film that creates it’s own complete story, yet it has a mythos that could easily be added to in order to make a feature-length film. The short has beautiful visuals and practical effects, although the use of the blue filter during the climax of the film cheapens the look a bit. With strong performances and an even stronger message, it’s impossible not to enjoy this short film. Between Camp Calypso and Fanatico, I can’t wait to see what Cumming and Boon do next.

OVERALL RATING: 4/5

Underwater

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A crew working in an underwater lab has been drilling into the darkest depths of the ocean. Something causes the facility to implode and flood, killing hundreds of crew. The few survivors will have to brave the intense pressure and darkness of the ocean floor, but there is something far worse waiting for them in the dark.

William Eubank (The Signal, Love) brings to life an all new aquatic horror film written by Brian Duffield (Insurgent, The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tarzan). I’m a big fan of aquatic horror films, so I’ve been looking forward to this film since the first trailer dropped. I’m happy to say the film was entertaining from start to finish. Right when Underwater starts, it wastes no time getting into the excitement. The filmmakers wisely focused on two main fears: the claustrophobic fear of being in the deep ocean and the fear of the unknown beasts that lurk in those hidden depths. Arguably, the most terrifying aspect of the film is that claustrophobia. These fears drive the plot forward with survival as the main focus. It’s a very simple plot, but effective at evoking tension and anxiety in the audience.

There is nothing wrong with a simple plot in horror. Honestly, sometimes it makes a monster movie more fun when the main goal is simply surviving a beast of unknown origin. Yet Underwater hints at a more intricate plot multiple times, but those hints never come to fruition. One of the most obvious signs that there was likely a more involved plot can be seen whenever the captain is on screen. It seems clear that he knows more than he lets on and some of his actions even come across as a bit sinister, but nothing ever comes of it. Since there are multiple writers involved and a bigger studio, I can’t help but wonder what the film started out as compared to what is currently in theaters. I do enjoy the plot as is, but I would still love to see a version with a deeper conspiracy.

Genre film lovers will likely recognize many of the faces in Underwater. Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper, Lizzie) stars as Norah. She is a highly industrious and pragmatic character. Stewart plays Norah quite well as someone who will do what she can to survive and to save her friends, but she also clearly understands her odds of survival. Another standout performance comes from John Gallagher Jr (10 Cloverfield Lane, Hush) as Smith. I’ve often thought of Gallagher as a chameleon in genre films because he does such a great job of committing to a character that he becomes almost unrecognizable. His portrayal of the lovable Smith is no different, and he is a joy to watch. Other compelling performances come from Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones, Iron Fist) as Emily, T.J Miller (Cloverfield, Deadpool) as Paul, and Vincent Cassel (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Black Swan) as the captain.

From the creatures to the sets to the costumes, every artistic detail of Underwater is clearly very thoroughly thought out. As an aquatic creature feature, the design of these underwater beasts is very important. Underwater utilizes CGI effects to create an array of frightening deep sea creatures. The audience will see different variations of this creature. For the most part the design makes sense for the environment these beings likely thrive in, but there are certain aspects that don’t work quite as well for me. Without giving too much away, the main creatures we see are a bit too humanoid, and one of the creature reveals almost looks like it belongs in a different movie entirely. The set and costume design are fantastic. It truly feels like the actors are in a lab with thick, sturdy walls that could still implode if even one thing goes wrong that deep in the ocean. The dive suits the actors wear are also incredible. They look as if they could actually handle the pressure of being under 6 miles of water. All of these artistic choices effectively transport the audience to an anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic setting.

Underwater is a claustrophobic creature feature that is entertaining as is, but hints at a deeper conspiracy. Eubank proves he knows how to make an edge-of-your-seat film. While it is thrilling and fun to watch, I can’t help but be curious what more there was to the plot before the film hit theaters. There are clear indications of a different film than what audiences were given. I truly enjoyed the popcorn horror flick we got. I just hope we either get a director’s cut when the film is released on Blu-ray that goes deeper or a sequel that builds on the mythos and the history of these creatures. If you haven’t seen Underwater yet, I strongly urge you to make time to see it on the big screen as it should be.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Sweetheart

sweetheart

After an apparent shipwreck, Jenn washes ashore on a remote tropical island. As if having to survive stranded on an island isn’t bad enough, as night falls Jenn realizes a deadly creature uses this island as its hunting ground. Jenn will have to battle the elements, dehydration, starvation, and the creature in order to survive.

This thrilling new aquatic horror film is directed by J.D. Dillard (Sleight, Judy Goose). Dillard also co-wrote Sweetheart along with Alex Theurer (Sleight, Intervention) and Alex Hyner, this being Hyner’s first feature film. The film opens as Jenn awakes on the shore of the tropic island. She has to quickly come to terms with the shipwreck, the likelihood that all her friends are dead, and how she will live on the island until found. Jenn proves to be a very resourceful woman, even as she is forced to fend off creature attacks each night. I’ve always been a fan of aquatic horror films, especially those with unique creatures. Sweetheart not only delivers a fantastic creature feature that is exciting to watch, but it also gives the audience a heroine they can root for.

Sweetheart may be a great creature feature, but it is also very well written. Since Jenn is on the island alone for a majority of the film, there is very little dialogue. The story is told primarily through action, which is very difficult to do in this day and age. There has to be a balance of action and exposition in order to hold the audience’s interest. Dillard, Theurer, and Hyner do a phenomenal job of maintaining this balance throughout the film. They even know when to inject moments where Jenn speaks to herself to break up the silence. Similarly, the audience only learns things as Jenn reveals them or as they are revealed to her. This leaves certain plot points a mystery. While for the most part it works well, there is one plot point that alludes to the fate of a character. While it works in the sense that we only learn as much as Jenn does, it seems almost unnecessary. It hints at something that never becomes important by the end of the film.

What I found most compelling about the writing is the subtext. There are multiple references in Sweetheart to whether or not Jenn is a trustworthy person. It references how women, especially women of color, often have a hard time getting people to believe them. In this film it’s to make people believe there is a ravenous monster lurking in the water. In the real world, it’s to make cops or other people believe they have been abused, raped, or any number of other terrible things. It’s a not-so-subtle subtext that fits in perfectly with the horror genre.

The film has a small cast, each performance being great. Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners, Dope) absolutely carries the film with her performance as Jenn. The way Jenn adapts to her situation and does what she can to defend herself is fascinating to watch. Clemons perfectly portrays Jenn’s resilience as well as her striking ability to accept her situation and rise above it. Another vital and entertaining performance comes from Andrew Crawford (Alien: Covenant, Little Monsters) as the creature. While this isn’t a speaking role, Crawford breaks through the screen as an imposing and terrifying monster. There is also an elegance about the creature and the way it moves. These two opposing forces make for quite the power struggle.

Visually, Sweetheart has a lot going for it. The tropical setting is absolutely gorgeous, which makes the presence of a monster stand out. The setting is enhanced by some absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Stefan Duscio. Duscio especially has a way of using natural light sources, such as the sunset and fire, to enhance the scene and draw the eye to specific things on screen. Then there is the creature design. In a film where there are really two characters, Jenn and the creature, the design of the creature becomes a vital piece of the film. Luckily, the filmmakers chose to go with a practical monster design that is as terrifying as it is sleek. It looks like something that could exist in the tropical setting, living in the ocean and hunting on land. Some of the creature effects are enhanced by CGI, but it’s clear that for the most part it is practically made.

Sweetheart is equal parts monster survival movie and social commentary film. Dillard, Theurer, and Hyner prove to be a fantastic filmmaking trio. They create a film with minimal dialogue that tells a powerful story of survival, resilience, and strength. While there are one or two extraneous aspects that never become fully-formed subplots, they don’t necessarily detract from the primary focus of the film. It is still a stunning film with a frightening creature and an important message: believe women.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

IT Chapter Two

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It’s been twenty-seven years since the Losers’ Club thought they defeated Pennywise the clown. Now, he’s back and taking children again. The friends are called back to reunite in Derry to try to stop It once again. As they remember their past, the old friends will have to face the monster head-on to break the cycle and save the children of Derry… and themselves.

The second half of Stephen King’s legendary novel is yet again brought to life in IT Chapter Two by screenwriter Gary Dauberman (The Nun, Annabelle Comes Home) and director Andy Muschietti (IT [2017], Mama). The film begins right where the previous film left off, with the Losers’ Club together in the field right after defeating Pennywise for the first time. After seeing a sign from Pennywise, the only person in the group to have stayed in Derry, Mike, calls his friends and reminds them of the promise they made all those years ago. From there the film weaves back and forth between the past and the present as each member of the group is called and brought home, then as their long-forgotten childhood memories finally come back to them. The way the plot is integrated with past and present is done perfectly in a way that still allows the film to naturally flow and move forward.

Dauberman and Muschietti do a fantastic job of including the important scenes and aspects of the source material, while still giving audiences something new. It allows the filmmakers to capture the spirit and feel of the book, even if it is not an exact adaptation. In several scenes, fans of the book will recognize what is happening. Yet there are still many exciting new things that did not come from King’s novel. Some of the changes were entire scenes, while others were more subtle, but impactful changes in the characters. One specific aspect of the novel I know many people were curious to see in the film is the “ritual of Chud.” Without giving away too many details, they do reference the ritual and have it in the film, but it might not be quite what fans of the novel expect. The climax of the film is thrilling, frightening, and heartbreaking. It pays homage to King’s work, but changes things up in order to give fans something unexpected and new.

Considering the IT Chapter Two has an almost three hour run time, somehow the film still felt like it went by very quickly. This is great because it means that, despite the long run time and everything they are able to include, the film is exciting and intriguing enough to keep the audience interested. Yet it also almost feels like many aspects of the film were simply brushed over instead of giving them the more in-depth look they deserved. Considering the length of the source material and how much the filmmakers were able to include in the film, I still applaud this cinematic achievement.

Fans of the first film were likely blown away by the kids’ performances. The adults in IT Chapter Two are no different. Of course, everyone knew James McAvoy (Split, Dark Phoenix) and Jessica Chastain (Mama, Molly’s Game) as adult Bill and Bev would be phenomenal. Jay Ryan (Beauty and the Beast, Terra Nova), who plays adult Ben, is one of the least known actors in the Losers’ Club. What makes his performance so great is how much he is able to convey more than words can with just a look, even when the camera is focused on other characters. James Ransone (Insidious, Generation Kill) is perfect casting as adult Eddie and comes across as the same person as the child we saw in the first film. One of the most surprising performances comes from Isaiah Mustafa (Chuck, Shadowhunters) as adult Mike. He is unrecognizeable as the “Old Spice guy” in this role. Not only does his character get more spotlight than his younger counterpart in the first film, but Mustafa is clearly up to the task and shines in the role. All of these actors are fantastic, but Bill Hader (Trainwreck, Barry) as adult Richie will be the one audiences remember most. Hader is absolutely hilarious, adding some great laugh out loud moments in the middle of the most tense moments. Yet what makes his performance so amazing is the emotional depth he conveys beyond the humor on the surface. Last, but not least, it is important to mention Bill Skarsgård (Castle Rock, IT [2017]) as Pennywise the clown. Just like his performance in the first film, Skarsgård manages to play what is likely the most terrifying clown in movie history.

Between practical effects, CGI, sets, and Easter eggs, IT Chapter Two has many stunning visual elements. As with the first film, the many terrifying creatures and characters IT appears as are a fantastic combination of practical effects and CGI enhancement. The two modes combine seamlessly to create some of the most shocking, disgusting, and frightening imagery. The filmmakers utilize familiar sets from the first film, such as the barrens and the house on Niebolt Street, but also incorporate gorgeous new ones. Some of the most memorable sets are the elegant old inn and the place deep underground where the final showdown takes place. The film also utilizes some really fascinating transitions. These transitions allow the filmmakers to maneuver from the past to the present and back again in unique, beautiful ways.

One of the most intriguing visual aspects of IT Chapter Two is the many Easter eggs hidden throughout. Some of these are characters in the film with small cameos, including Muschietti himself and the actor who played young Ben in the 1990 IT miniseries, Brandon Crane, and one cameo I will leave as a surprise. Other Easter eggs are references to the 1990 IT and other popular films from the 80’s. One especially memorable moment is a creature that is a combination of practical and CGI effects that appears to be an Easter egg or homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

IT Chapter Two is a thrilling and heart-felt conclusion to the story of our favorite losers that captures the feel of King’s novel while still giving us something exciting and new. Muschietti and Dauberman clearly know how to tell a compelling story that has a strong emotional core, amazing sets and effects, tons of scares, and even more laughs. They also honor King’s work by creating this cultural phenomenon of a film for horror fans and non-horror fans alike to adore. Every single actor embodies the characters they play in a way that reminds us of the children from the first film. And, of course, Skarsgård still brings the terror with his unique and terrifying portrayal of Pennywise. Purists who want an exact adaptation of the book or fans who are devoted to the miniseries may not be thrilled by the film, but this film is undoubtedly one of the horror highlights of 2019.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10